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Many of our teachers have been glued to the television this christmas watching the new documentary 'Making a Murderer' on Netflix. The serial is similar to the hugely successful podcast 'Serial' and the HBO/Sky Atlantic documentary 'The Jinx' as it seeks to analyse a criminal case that the producers believe led to a wrongful conviction (or in 'The Jinx' - no conviction at all). There are suggestions that the police have 'planted' evidence on the subject of the documentary.
While all of these shows hail from the United States, there is much that a lawyer or law student can gain from them. The court process is similar and the process of police investigation and criminal justice are also how we operate in the United Kingdom. One of the key differences is with the public defender system.
Defending the poor
In the UK, anyone suspected of a crime and who does not have the means to pay will be able to rely on criminal legal aid. This means that a solicitor or representative from a local firm will be on hand to advise you and defend you in court if need be. In the US, people without the means to pay can take advantage of a publc defender.
A public defender is appointed to defend one of the suspects in Making a Murderer. The crime he is accused of is a particuarly violent act of murder and we will not go into the details now. His lawyer appears to be (to put it diplomatically) incapable of defending a crime of this seriousness and his decisions are questioned frequently in the documentary. For more on the public defender system, please see the YouTube link at the bottom of this page.
We have all seen the reports from the US of police officers targeting African Americans. Another difference here is that the subject is white and poor rather than black and poor. As he belongs to a lower class family, it could be believed that the police considered him an easy target.
Is it all bad?
Viewers of the documentary will be disheartened and disapproving of the American criminal justice system, but there are some positives in the documentary. The two lawyers for the primary suspect Steven Avery are a credit to the legal profession and, in the words of one journalist, 'are brilliant, compassionate and fiercely competent.' As you watch these two gentlemen investigate the crime and the prosecution case, perhaps you will feel that American criminal justice is not broken yet.
To learn more about the language of law and criminal law in the United Kingdom and the United States, contact Legal English Language Training on 020 3566 0145, by email or by filling out the form on this page.
British comedian John Oliver explains how the public defender system works in the United States.
Netflix trailer for 'Making a Murderer'